September 3, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Videos and Target Audiences
• The videotaped murder of American journalist Stephen Sotloff by the so-called Islamic State (IS) was targeted directly at the US and its allies in order to create divisions and possibly incite a military reaction that could bring a common enemy to the chaotic extremist battlefields of Syria and Iraq
• Videos of IS members parading into seized towns while driving stolen military equipment rally supporters and help sway the undecided; beheading and other execution videos are aimed instead to terrorize and create divisions among possible foes, in these cases specifically among the Kurds, the Lebanese Sunni, and the US and its allies
• IS’s greatest fear is the “enemy from within,” meaning a Sunni uprising supported by regional actors; it would much prefer a high-profile external enemy that could galvanize disparate rival extremist groups against the West
• IS wants its enemies to fight independently of one another, in rash and non-strategic fashion, which explains its target audience for the recent videos
• The US response needs to, with regional partners, decisively weaken IS while not rallying other groups to a common fight through the introduction of Western forces in the area.
The brutal murder of American journalist Steven Sotloff is the fifth beheading announced by the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS), in the last two weeks. Along with Mr Sotloff, fellow American journalist James Foley, Syrian journalist Bassam Raies, Lebanese solider Ali Al-Sayyed, and an unidentified Kurdish peshmerga soldier in Mosul were executed on video.
While these videos will appeal to the psychopathic members of the group, they are likely not intended for general recruitment purposes. Rather, these videos are direct messages aimed at a specific audience, warning against reprisal while simultaneously inciting it. In short, IS is trying to pick its next fight among a growing list of opponents. It fears a unified regional response that can generate a grassroots Sunni uprising in the areas under its nominal control, and so is seeking to bring in an external enemy to make the fight between all extremist groups and the West.
Primarily, the message of these recent videos is intended for the United States and its allies, specifically the United Kingdom. Released under the twitter hashtag #AMessagetoAmerica, the James Foley murder was followed by the murder of the Kurdish solider with the hashtag #2ndAmessagetoAmerica, in which IS specifically warned against joint Kurdish-US action. The video, which showed several more captured Kurdish fighters, was intended to terrorize local Kurdish opposition in light of recent IS setbacks at the hands of the peshmerga (and US airstrikes), and discourage enthusiastic joint action between the Kurds and the US. While it won’t succeed, the video might sow doubt and hesitation, which is all IS wants at this stage.
More than US airstrikes, however punishing, IS fears a popular Sunni uprising in the areas under its control. The first “Sahwah,” or Sunni Awakening, marked the end of the group’s first rise to prominence, under earlier names of al-Qaeda in Iraq and then Islamic State of Iraq. External pressure in the form of US strikes can blunt IS but only grassroots opposition can evict it. To that end, IS is deliberately trying to provoke a US response that goes too far: one that kills local civilians and invokes the ever-caustic ‘collateral damage’ and manages to unify, even if temporarily, the numerous anti-Western extremist groups now fighting IS as well as the Iraq and Syrian governments.
It is not accidental that IS has now threatened a British national, as it likely hopes to create division and spur rash action in America’s closest ally as well. Likewise, the murder of Syrian journalist Bassam Raies was likely intended to further cut down on critical and accurate ground-truth reporting on IS. The group fears the truth and local reporters represent an unacceptable challenge to its narrative.
IS is now in the “hold” stage of its strategy; honest reporting on its administration of the area doesn’t serve its interests so IS sent the message as a warning to potential would-be local reporters that the truth will not be tolerated. The release of a video last week depicting the murder of Lebanese solider Sergeant Ali al-Sayyed was intended as a warning to the Lebanese army and, oddly enough, to the Sunni community there, that IS isn’t to be opposed. That Ali al-Sayyed was a Sunni and not the expected target—that is, Shi’a—shows three things: IS wants to pressure for the release of Sunni extremist prisoners in Lebanon; it seeks to terrorize any Sunni who might think it acceptable to oppose IS because it is also Sunni; and it strives to pressure the Lebanese government without inviting, if possible in the short term, additional conflict with Hizballah.
IS knows that its summer of success will likely be followed by a difficult autumn; the beheading videos are its attempt to set the coming battles in its own favor.
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